Back To Hell: NYC’s First Punk Fixes Past Mistakes

New York Press
September 2, 2009

TO UNDERSTAND THE eerie conception behind Richard Hell’s new project, Destiny Street Repaired, a stirring re-execution of his late band the Voidoids’ flawed 1982 album, you need to go way back in time. In the closing days of the mid-1960s, Richard Meyers, a fatherless 17-year-old high school dropout came to New York from Kentucky on a Greyhound bus. He was itching to make it as a poet.You can picture him—a cardboard suitcase in his hand—moving apprehensively out of Port Authority into the bright lights and big holiday crowds of Times Square.

Fast forward to the mid-’70s: Meyers has willed himself into Richard Hell, the junkie-thin, goggle-eyed, bass-playing frontman of the Voidoids. Sounding like it came from another planet, the band’s debut, Blank Generation, crystallized the punk zeitgeist and critics knew it right away. But the rock-star glow dimmed as the introspective poet had to live with his unfeeling stage creation.With his genius for synthesizing philosophical and poetic truths together into pop lyrics, Hell might have created a masterpiece from that psychic push and pull.

Instead, despite flashes of white-hot brilliance like “Time” and its title track, Destiny Street, the Voidoids’ second and last studio album, was ultimately sunk by lazy production. It was four long years, an eon by pop standards, before Hell and his guitar maestro Robert Quine had gotten it together enough to make the record. By that time, Hell had fallen for the siren song of cheap and readily available junk. “It’s indisputable that [it] was an inferior piece of work. I always liked the songs, but the arrangements and the production are just miserable,” Hell tells me.

It’s a broiling morning in the middle of summer when we speak, and Hell is lucky to be Upstate, hundreds of miles away from his East Village apartment, where he’s been working on his memoirs at a friend’s mountain cabin. Writing is nothing new for him. He’s produced a steady stream of poetry, essays and novels since quitting rock ’n’ roll two years after Destiny Street’s 1982 release. Hell explains that the friction between trying to make good music and work the pop angle, “really confused me and I finally just gave up and left music.” I ask if the conflict between his two personas had more to do with his lack of productivity than being strung out. “Yeah, you might be right,” he says after a pause. “There definitely was a friction there, an internal contradiction.”

Now he’s returned to music with his first suite of newly recorded material since Destiny Street. Repaired features fresh vocals and guitar work laid over rhythm tracks from the original 1981 demos. It’s an unprecedented effort that seems to owe more to daydreams than the music business. Robert Quine’s clanging, jaunty leads are notably missing—he died of an OD in 2004—but the album succeeds in being both similar to and better than the original. Hell’s infectious yelp—which by the early 1980s had become more wistful—is uncannily similar to when he was 30, to the point of being confusing. When I mention this, Hell is obviously pleased, letting out a throaty laugh. “Yeah, that’s great,” he says. “I was just trying to do the songs justice.”

Hell looks decades younger than his 59 years, but that’s not to say he doesn’t think about getting old. “You can see how people get grumpy when they get older. And you can also see why some people kill themselves,” he tells me when asked about his longtime admitted preoccupation with aging. “When they just feel like they’ve reached the point where they passed their peak.” I ask if he’s referring to Dee-Dee Ramone and he let’s out a long sigh. He says, “I think he just OD’d, actually. But it might have been more true of Quine.” Although he was still playing beautifully, he was depressed and contemplating a downward trajectory. Rock ‘n’ roll is, after all, a young man’s sport.

Hell’s relationship with time is complicated, which makes his new renderings of the Destiny material bittersweet. Its most affecting song is the melancholic “Time,” about the failure of time to deliver release from one’s character defects. Given flight by Quine’s (or in the case of Repaired, Ivan Julian’s) minor-key fills, it’s a piece of music that rivals anything by Dylan, who is covered on Destiny.“For me, it’s kind of the environment in which we exist,” Hell explains. “It’s time more than anything else. And it’s really mysterious and fascinating.”